I have to say, gin is not a spirit that I’ve always been a fan of. In fact, I used to see it as more of cocktail spirit and not so much about flavor. But maybe I’d simply had the wrong gin. It was in Europe when I started enjoying it more. I then read up more on it and, finally, decided to try making my own. I started with compound gin and after, once I found a flavor I liked, I also distilled my own in my copper pot still.
What makes gin special is its predominant flavor of juniper berries. It’s been around since the Middle Ages, when it was used as herbal medicine and then evolved towards one the most popular spirits worldwide. The spirit has its origins in Dutch and Flemish distilleries in the 17th century and spread to England later on as a cheap and easy to produce spirit, especially after taxes on all imported spirits were raised. English gin history is actually very exciting, as gin became so popular with all social classes that it was thought to have highly contributed to various social problems of the time, such as high death rates and population growth. The state tried to limit the distilling of gin and impose stricter regulations throughout the 18th century, attempts which lead to a series of street riots. In 18th century London, there were thought to have been around 1,500 residential stills, producing legal gin in Londoners’ homes.
Gin became popular in the US during Prohibition, in the 1920s. That’s when the term Bathtub gin also appeared and referred to the poor quality homemade gin of the time. It was called that because it usually came in tall bottles, too tall to be topped up with water from a sink, so the bathtub tap was used. Some stories also talk of fermentation and distillation having taken place in bathtubs. It was predominant in cocktails as other ingredients could mask the awful taste of the poorly produced drink. In America, gin is currently defined as an alcoholic beverage of a minimum of 80 proof with the characteristic flavor of juniper berries.
There are two main types of gin: compound and distilled gin. As I was saying, I started off with compound gin as it is much easier to make. It is basically made through infusing neutral spirits with essences or natural flavorings, without redistillation. Although the predominant flavor for the infusion needs to be juniper, you are free to make a very wide variety of combinations from ingredients such as:coriander seeds, angelica root, orris root, sweet orange peel, lemon, lime, licorice powder (root), cloves, cinnamon sticks, anise, fennel, rosemary, cardamom seeds, cassia or others. You can even add the chosen mix of botanicals to spirits you’ve made in your own copper pot still, such as vodka or moonshine.
Distilled gin involves the distillation of a grain mash and then redistilling it with the same type of botanicals, juniper in particular, to obtain the aroma and necessary flavor. The earliest type of known gin was produces in pot stills, through the fermentation of a grain mash, of wheat, rye, barley or other grains, then redistilling it with the natural flavorings. A double gin can be produced by redistilling the first again and adding fresh botanicals. Alcohol content is not high, around 135 proof after the first distillation and 150 proof for a double gin, but the use of pot stills gives it a stronger flavor.
But even for distilled gin, there are several different methods in use, from the ingredients you choose to use, to how you add them to the recipe and different ways of distilling. It is believed that you get the strongest juniper flavor through soaking the botanicals in the mash first, as well as afterwards inside your pot still, during the distillation process. A different method is soaking the botanicals for up to 24h in the base spirit, filtering them out and then redistilling. Commercial distillers such as Gordon’s, Beefeater and Plymouth use his method, soaking their flavorings for 24h or less. A lighter type of gin can be produced by using the “gin head “ still, which involves the suspension of a gin basket in the head of the still, making the vapors go through the spices and plants for a lighter, softer taste. Bombay Sapphire Gin is obtained through this method in column stills.
For a homemade distilled gin, I would personally go for variations on traditional Dutch gin (genever) recipes. Starting with a mash from wheat, rye and malted barley and distilling it in your copper pot still. Add juniper berries for your second distillation and then add a more varied mix of spices, alongside fresh juniper, for the 3rd run. A 4th run can also be done, for a stronger flavor and higher proof. You can add the botanicals loose in the pot still or place them in a cotton sack.
As a basic rule, you can add about 1oz of botanical mix per liter of alcohol. Typically, a fine gin contains between 6-10 botanicals but the combination depends very much on taste and quantities, as long as you make sure that juniper is predominant.
Gin is a great drink with a very particular aroma. You can experiment with different combinations of ingredients and try them out through a simple infusion process but also put your copper pot still to good use in a redistilling method, once you’ve found a flavor you like. I also highly recommend you read up on gin history, it is truly fascinating how the drink was invented as herbal medicine, then became popular as a spirit and tailored its flavor and production processes to the different regions it travelled to.
Posted by Jason Stone on